Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | May 4th, 2020
Arkansas (Clark Duke, 2020) 1½ out of 4 stars.
Co-writer/director/actor Clark Duke has assembled a decent enough team to star in his feature debut behind the camera. Beyond himself, there is Vivica A. Fox (Jason’s Letter), Liam Hemsworth (Killerman), Vince Vaughn (Unfinished Business), Michael Kenneth Williams (Motherless Brooklyn) and the incomparable John Malkovich (Velvet Buzzsaw), to name but some. He, too, performs honorably alongside them, yet by the end of Arkansas we are left less impressed than we should be, the dramatic arc too flattened along the way to deliver much of an effective punch. There are moments within, though, that help carry the movie across the cinematic finish line, even as it trips and limps along the way. Let’s give it points for trying.
Duke (Hot Tub Time Machine) plays Swin, part of a duo that forms within the first 10 minutes, though we start with Hemsworth’s Kyle, whose voiceover will occasionally surface to guide us through the finer points of exposition. They’re small-time drug dealers, or at least they aspire to be, happy to move up the ladder within the “Dixie mafia,” a term Kyle applies ironically, disparaging any idea about organized crime being, in fact, organized down south. Certainly, the movie bears that truth out within the confines of its almost two-hour length, though one can imagine that, surely, there must be some smart criminals in Arkansas, even if none of them are here. Duke is from the state, so I suppose he’s allowed to poke fun at its ostensible cluelessness. Unfortunately, he never finds quite the right tone to make an effective comedy, or drama, or both, about his home.
Instead, what we get is an occasionally interesting character study of two buffoons who manage, somehow, to wreak havoc among the people for whom they work. By the end, established protocols have been destroyed, and a new order looms ahead. But do we care? Despite the inclusion of a potentially sweet (or funny, we’re never sure) relationship between Swin and a local nurse (Eden Brolin, Blood Bound), the final climax leaves us cold, since no one effectively moves us. Better to have played it in a more Coen Brothers vein, then, laying on the acerbic satire. Ultimately, Arkansas takes itself too seriously, undercutting its strengths of cast. Like the gangsters it tries to lampoon, it’s just not that organized.